Category Archives: Holy Days & Festivals

The Torah of second chances

Back Camera A couple of years ago, after several years of trying to get all the way through the counting of the Omer, I built an Omer-counter with a foolproof reminder system – my son.  It’s based on the Christian advent calendar in that  it’s a series of forty-nine boxes (seven rows of seven) which  has randomly placed toys inside the boxes. NO more forgetting to count in the evening! Every night, I have an excellent reminder, and so I do not lose my chance to say the blessing when I count, or worse yet, forget altogether and have to quit counting for the year.

Back CameraIt’s a yearly frustration for lots of people who try to keep up with the Omer – it’s easy to screw it up and lose track, and according to the tradition, if you mess up, well, hey tough. You’re out of luck.

That’s why it’s odd that about a month into the Omer (today, in fact) there’s a little known holiday that’s about  …second chances.  Pesach sheni ( or “second passover”) is a biblically based holiday that happens because, as is related in Numbers chapter 9, when God commands the Israelites, a year after the exodus,  to bring the passover offering, there were certain people who had become ritually impure through contact with a dead body, and so, could not prepare the Passover offering on that day.

They approached Moses and Aaron and said, “We are unclean by the dead body of a man; wherefore are we to be kept back, so as not to bring the offering of God in its appointed season among the children of Israel?” (Numbers 9:7).  After these people approached Moses and Aaron, God tells them that from then on, if anyone is ritually impure on passover, or is unable to keep passover for some other reason beyond their control, “he shall keep the passover unto God in the second month on the fourteenth day at dusk they shall keep it; they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.” (Numbers 9:11)

Pesach sheni is a strange holiday. We don’t really observe it – mostly because  there isn’t really anything to observe  – there’s no requirements, since we no longer bring sacrifices. And yet, it’s sort of a shame. Here we are, in the midst of a period where every day counts, where there are no second chances, where you have to get it exactly right, or you lose your chance (at least until next year), and there’s this holiday that interrupts it for the purpose of giving a second chance for a holiday that occurred a month prior – and not only that, but it’s the only holiday we have the sole purpose of which is to make up for a holiday that someone missed out on.

What is that all about?

Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn is cited by his son-in-law as saying that, “Pesach Sheni teaches us that ‘Nothing is ever lost: it’s never too late!”  and then the latter Schneersohn goes on to say, “Our conduct can always be rectified. Even someone who is impure, who was far away and even desired to be so, can still correct himself.” He continues, “Given the significance of Pesach Sheni, one might ask: Why was it instituted a full month after Pesach, in the month of Iyar? Wouldn’t it have been better to atone for our deficiencies at the earliest opportunity, in Nissan?”

“We can answer this question by comparing the spiritual characteristics of Nissan and Iyar. Nissan is the month of revelation, the month during which God revealed His greatness and redeemed the Jewish people despite their inadequacies. Iyar, by contrast, is the month of individual endeavor, a quality that is exemplified by the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer. The theme of Iyar, self-refinement initiated by the individual himself, is in keeping with the nature of Pesach Sheni, the festival in which an individual who was not motivated by Pesach is given an additional opportunity to elevate himself.”

So, two things:

First, the key to pesach sheni is precisely that it does occur a month later, during the Omer. Unlike the first Pesach, which is a national holiday, Pesach sheni is an individual’s holiday. The second thing is the way in which Pesach sheni came about – unlike well, pretty much everything else in the Torah, it isn’t initiated by God, given to Moses and Aaron and then passed on  to the people. Instead, Pesach sheni is initiated by the people themselves, by a group of individuals. In fact, I know of really only one other case like this one: the daughters of Tzelophechad (which also appears in the book of Numbers, farther along, in Numbers 27), who challenged a law of inheritance whereby only sons could inherit, even if there weren’t any. They  brought their challenge and God told Moses that they were right and amended the law.

I think that that parallel to the daughters of Tzelophechad is the key to why this is the only holiday that is a “make-up” for another holiday.  It’s not just that it’s a group of individuals who want a make-up. It’s that  these individuals saw a specific wrong that they wanted addressed, and they wanted it addressed for the sake of justice to individuals who have no control over being excluded from the nation.  In the case of Tzelophechad’s daughters,  the case is their sex; in the case of pesach sheni, it’s because they were doing another mitzvah ( caring for the dead). But the important thing is that  these two cases  are things which exclude them from the body of the nation in some crucial way. It is because of this that they  take their complaint to God, and God answers them, “Of course, you are right.”

IN recent days, when we have seen so much change so quickly  both in the Jewish community and out of it in regards to gay marriage and inclusion, this is a message that we should all take to heart. Pesach sheni isn’t merely a second chance for the individuals who were excluded, but is a second chance for the nation to include in its inheritance and in its moment of revelation everyone who throws their lot in with the Jewish people. Because even God can make a mistake, and even God can admit it and rectify it.

 

Posted on April 24, 2013

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Do We Prefer Yom Hazikaron or Memorial Day?

Is Yom Hazikaron a good thing?  This unusual question recently popped into my head while we were teaching our religious school students about the series of “Yom” holidays this month (Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, and Yom Ha’atzmaut). Yom Hashoah was easy for them to understand, if somewhat hard to relate to. Yom Ha’aztmaut, which we explained to them as the Israeli Fourth of July, was easy on both accounts. But where students had the most difficulty grasping any meaning was Yom Hazikaron. I tried explaining it as Israel’s Memorial Day but soon realized that this description was completely ineffectual to them: unless one has a family member in the Armed Services, Memorial Day, in America, has little civic meaning.  Instead, it has devolved into little more than the last school holiday of the year and the pop cultural start of summer. This, in turn, led me to wonder: which Memorial Day would I rather have, Israel’s or America’s?

IDF Ceremony

In Israel, war is a perpetual reality. Virtually everyone serves in the army. There have been six wars fought since 1948, with the first four (1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973) threatening Israel’s very existence. Even when it is not in formal war, Israel faces constant border skirmishes and rocket attacks from its hostile neighbors. And, perhaps most importantly, everyone has a relative or close friend who has perished in combat. Yom Hazikaron is marked in Israel with piercing air raid sirens, interrupting the evening and later the morning and bringing everyone together to commemorate the fallen. Ironically, for the generation I was teaching in religious school, America too has been in a perpetual state of war since 9/11. But because of our huge population, the remoteness of the armed conflict, and our strength compared to that of Afghanistan or Iraq, war for Americans lacks any existential resonance. We might worry about the financial impact of war and whether our troops are getting the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) treatment they deserve, but we do not worry about whether America will be wiped off the map tomorrow. When Memorial Day was first proclaimed on May 6, 1868, by General John Logan, to honor dead soldiers in the aftermath of the Civil War, I imagine it did express a similar sense of somber uncertainty. But today Memorial Day means little more than permission to wear white pants until Labor Day.

So the more interesting question to me is this: which Memorial Day is preferable, from a meta-perspective? Yes, Memorial Day in Israel certainly means more, but is that a good thing? Or would we prefer for Israel to reach a state of power and stability that it no longer fears the threat of annihilation that Yom Hazikaron hints at? From a psychological standpoint, don’t we want our children to grow up without losing friends and family to armed combat? Assuming conscription remains necessary given Israel’s small size, wouldn’t we prefer to military service in Israel to feel more like military service in Switzerland–an exercise of vigilance rather than preparing for the inevitable loss of life in war? On the other hand, Yom Hazikaron takes on a sacred feel that Memorial Day does not. Do we want to risk losing this sense of kedusha, of holiness? Do we like what it signifies about the value of each human life; of dedication to an obligation bigger than oneself?

I am eager to hear your thoughts. And in the meantime, may each of us take some time today to pause and reflect about the ultimate sacrifice paid by so many Israelis to enable each of us to have a Jewish Homeland to enjoy and celebrate.

Posted on April 15, 2013

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Happiness is Contemplation

happy-cat1Passover ended less than a week ago.

Many Jews say that Passover is our favourite holiday. And why not? On Seder nights, we gather for food, friendship, discussion, and intergenerational activities. Food – both ritual food and just plain tasty food – sits at the centre of the table.

Passover can also be an exciting project, involving creativity and problem-solving. Some people couple it with spring cleaning. Some host a Seder and creatively adapt tradition in new ways each year. Some try out unusual gluten-free recipes.

Passover falls just six months before everyone’s other favourite holiday: Yom Kippur.

Yes, Yom Kippur, the holiday on which more North American Jews attend synagogue and stay home from work than any other. On which people gather in order not to eat. And to engage in 25 hours of self-reflection, stimulated by the poetry of the prayerbook, set to haunting music.

Who would have thought self-reflection could be so popular?

Nowadays it seems people will do almost anything to avoid being alone with their thoughts and feelings.

Years ago, my fellow commuters and I would sit on the bus, watching the passing scenery and musing about human nature. Now we sit staring down at our smartphone screens, playing, reading or texting.

Years ago, a person would take a walk “to clear my head.” Now, when we walk, we stick earbuds in our ears, and listen to tunes or a podcast as we stroll.

These are popular habits. But they don’t represent a shift in the needs of the human psyche. In fact, our love of self-reflection is alive and well.

Recently, the idea of “Happiness” has been dominating the “self-help” psychology book market. Most books echo a single general theme: Happiness begins with self-reflection.

Gretchen Rubin is the author of the best-selling, down-to-earth book The Happiness Project. Rubin’s website tells you how to begin your happiness project: Ask yourself some questions. “What makes you feel good?” “What gives you joy, energy and fun?” In other words, reflect and begin to know yourself.

Robert Holden is an inspirational speaker and veteran of the Oprah show. His latest book on happiness, Shift Happens, hits you with its message right in the first chapter. To find your “Unconditioned Self,” observe yourself, identify the layers of hurt and grievance that obscure this self, and learn to lift them. In other words, reflect, get to know yourself, and understand how you can grow.

Martin Seligman, a research psychologist, directs the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania. His website invites you to participate in his research on happiness. You can fill out a questionnaire assessing your emotional makeup, character strength, or work-life balance. The questions start you thinking, “How do I approach life, and how does that contribute to my happiness?” You reflect, you get to know yourself, you understand, you begin to make a plan.

Aristotle’s ideas are back on the best-seller list. In the 4th century BCE, he wrote, “Happiness is contemplation.”

The ideas of Kohelet, author of the Biblical book Ecclesiastes, are making a comeback. Kohelet found that, among life’s ups and downs, “wisdom is a stronghold.”

Often we talk about “finding” meaning, as if we can look outside of ourselves and stumble upon it. Perhaps we should talk more about “making” meaning. Because happiness seems to come through the activity of knowing and growing ourselves.

Ancient and modern teachers agree: Happiness is not a product, it’s a process. A process of reflection, forgiveness, self-assessment, and growth. One that we do over and over again.

In spite of all our habits of avoidance, we can’t help but reach for happiness.

Image: robservations.ca; cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet

Posted on April 7, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Unleavened Equality

I will never forget the moment when my daughter came out. She was 5 years old. We were eating dinner as a family. My daughter put down her fork, placed her hand on the table, looked at my husband and me, and said “Mommy, Abba, I’m not going to marry a woman.”

Our daughter had come out as straight.

My husband and I both felt that it was important not to make any assumptions about our kids’ sexual orientation, and to make a concerted effort to reflect that value in conversation. So when we spoke about marriage with our kids, we always said, “If you fall in love with a man or a woman and want to get married,” etc. Turns out that, at least at this point in our kids’ development, both our son and daughter identify as straight. But it could have been different, and we knew that from before they were conceived.

Last week, when I changed my Facebook profile picture to an equality sign made out of matzah, my daughter asked what that was all about. I explained that the United States Supreme Court was in the process of discussing marriage equality and Prop 8 — the same legislation that our family protested four years ago when we lived in California — and that the equality sign affirms that both gay and straight couples who love each other should be able to get married. Her response? “Well, of course.”

But the matzah equality picture actually reflects much more. At our Passover seders last week, Jews throughout the world said “In every generation, we each must see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt as part of the Exodus.” In other words, we are called upon to not simply understand the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom as the trajectory of our ancestors; rather, we must experience it as our own journey, allowing the story to seep into our very being and inspire us toward further action in our day. In every generation, we must remember our history — and we must use it as a catalyst, inspiring us to have the courage to move humankind to the next stage of liberation.

That next stage of human liberation is right in front of us. The matzah illustrates that this is not merely a secular issue: This is a Jewish issue as well. As a rabbi, my support for marriage equality is not in spite of my religious convictions; rather, it is because of my religious convictions that I stand strong on this issue. In every generation we must remember our oppression and we must work tirelessly to prevent the oppression of others. This is the Jewish way.

I have stood under a chuppah with many loving couples, creating a meaningful space for them to publicly celebrate their deep connection, transforming their partnership into a marriage. I long to live in a country that supports my ability as a rabbi to affirm the love of two consenting adults — whether gay or straight — who want to make a holy commitment to one another.

The word for marriage in Hebrew is kiddushin. Loosely translated as sanctification or holiness, kiddushin literally means separating, making distinct. From my experience working with couples, I can guarantee that each marriage is distinct. They each come with their own blessings and their own challenges. What they have in common is love. Commitment. A desire to spend a lifetime together. A dream of creating happiness with one another. A promise to hold each other up in difficult moments. A conviction to leave this world a little better than the couple found it. Each couple I have married truly believes that they live a more enriched, more meaningful life together than they ever would apart.

Is this kind of holiness limited to straight people? Of course not. It takes love, kindness, respect, a desire to support and build something greater than oneself, the courage to look inward and expand outward, a sense of humor and whole lot of work. Anybody who has a healthy marriage can tell you about that work. Because marriage is really hard. Why would we deny committed, holy love to courageous, determined people simply because of their gender?

My daughter may be straight, but even were she gay, my dedication to this issue would not stem from its impact on my own family. I am passionate about marriage equality because there are many, many people throughout these United States who are currently being denied simple rights that so many of us take for granted.

In every generation, we each must see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt as part of the Exodus.

It is time to mobilize, to part the seas and walk together to the promised land that the founders of our great nation dreamt into existence. It is time to help our nation become a place that is truly built on “liberty and justice for all.”

Posted on April 5, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

It’s Over…or Is It?

Passover has passed us over and last night’s dinner was a veritable chametz-fest.

bread
“But wait!” you shout, “Passover isn’t over; today is the 8th day!”

Or is it??

If you observe 8 days of Pesach, then indeed today is the 8th day. But for those who observe 7 days, today is the day after the 7th day.

And no, that is not the same thing.

Why all the confusion? A simple question (“How long is Passover?”) should have a simple answer. But few things are that simple.

Let’s return to where it all started. As it says in the Good Book:

These are the set times of the Eternal, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time: In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a passover offereing to the Eternal, and on the fifteenth day of that month the Eternal’s Fest of Unleavened Bread. You shall eat unleavened break for seven days. The first day shall be for you a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. Seven days you shall make offerings by fire to the Eternal. The seventh day shall be a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. (Lev. 23:4 -8 )

Nowhere in the Torah does God mention 8 days. As far as Jewish law is concerned, Jews who are permanent residents of Israel, regardless of their affiliation, observe Pesach for seven days. This is true of even the most stringent.

So, if seven days was good enough for God, where does the idea of eight days arise?

In ancient times, our people were not working from a firmly fixed caledar. The beginning of each month was determined by witnesses actually sighting the first sliver of the new moon. Once the new month was declared, word had to get out to the entire country. As Israel is not a large place, communication could be handled simply by bonfires. After some tricksters built some ersatz bonfires, authorized runners were used to take news of the new month from town to town.

Once we were exiled from our Homeland, calendar issues got a little trickier given that we did not have access to today’s means of instantaneous communication. Getting the message to Jews living outside of Israel was difficult. The lunar cycle takes either 29 or 30 days to complete its cycle. In order to make certain that Diaspora Jews would be no more than one day off, the Rabbis decided to add an additional day to the holidays. This is a good example of how the Rabbis made Jewish life livable in the Diaspora so that we could remain true to our customs and beliefs.

With our modern technology and tremendous astronomical knowledge, we are now able to predict the moon’s cycles in advance. However, the custom of adding the extra day to the festivals (known as Yom Tov Sheni shel Galuyot) has become a powerful tradition.

The Reform Movement, during the nineteenth century, sought to emphasize the basics and eliminate redundancies in Jewish practice. This extra day of the holidays was a good example of such a redundancy. Since the Torah commands a seven day observance of Pesach, and we know which day is which, it made good sense to drop the added (and not Biblically-ordained) eighth day.

What about contemporary Reform practice? The official position of Reform is to observe Pesach for seven days, as the Torah dictates. Individual Reform Jews, if they are accustomed to observing eight days for this festival, are–of course–free to do so. This practice binds us closer to both the original Biblical practice as well as to ALL Jews living in Israel. (The one exception being Jews come from a 8-day tradition and then make aliyah.)

So for Reform Jews around the world and the Jewish community in Israel, Pesach 5773 came to an end one hour after sundown last night. And if seven days wasn’t enough time to finish all five pounds of matzah, here are some interesting ideas of what to do with the left-overs: 20 Things to Do With Matzah

For those of you still observing Pesach, “Moadim L’simcha Times of Joy!” And for the rest of us…the Countdown to Sinai has begun!!!

Posted on April 2, 2013

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A Contemporary Story Of Redemption

“My father was a wandering Aramean.” With this quote, from Deuteronomy 26:5, we begin not only the Maggid (story-telling) portion of our Passover seders but also the very ontology of Judaism as an ethnicity. We originated as a wandering people and, for much of the past 2000 years, have remained a people dispossessed of a homeland, expelled from one location to the next. Migration is interwoven into our national fabric; it is part of Jewish DNA.

Ellis_Island_arrivals (1)

That is why I find the paucity of Jewish voices about domestic immigration reform so troubling. Congress is on the verge of addressing comprehensive immigration reform for the first time since the 1980s, but where are our Jewish organizations in this effort? To their credit, the Religious Action Center, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and other large organizations have passed resolutions and issued press releases supporting immigration reform. But where is the passion? Where is the zeal? The Jewish community certainly has it when it comes to issues impacting Israel; in recent years we have mobilized in highly effective ways for Darfur; and most recently have been at the forefront of gun control reform. But on an issue that speaks so deeply to our national consciousness—from the biblical mandate to care for the stranger to our historical experience of exile and persecution—we should be leading immigration reform efforts, not retroactively offering words of support.

Reports this past week suggest that a deal in the U.S. Senate is close at hand, but there are still political battles to be fought. Perhaps most significantly, some members of Congress are still reluctant to include language creating a pathway to citizenship for the eleven million illegal immigrants currently in America, preferring instead a secondary “residency” status. We know first-hand what second-class status means. If we truly care about human dignity, if we embrace the “tzelem Elohim,” the spark of divinity, within each individual, then we ought to speak out in favor of opportunities for full citizenship in the immigration bill.

As we enjoy the last days of Passover and begin the sacred work of purifying our bodies, hearts, and minds in anticipation of Shavuot, let’s commit ourselves to purifying this nation of its immigration blight. Let’s ensure that decent, hard-working people don’t have to live in the shadows, terrified that deportation and exile lurk just around the corner. The transition from exile to redemption is the foundation of our national story. Let’s celebrate this core aspect of Judaism by leading the charge in immigration reform, so that eleven million people likewise can experience a contemporary redemption here in America.

Posted on April 1, 2013

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On Pesach, you are not alone.

wavesPassover has always been my favorite holiday. I love the foods, seeing my family and my friends who are normally far away, and I love the incredible power of the holiday itself -  a message that  speaks to people  of many faiths, throughout the world, inspiring them with an idea that after thousands of years, remains a powerful and inspirational idea: liberation is possible.

And yet this year, I have to admit: I’m tired. I don’t just mean that  the cooking and cleaning balanced with a daily job and family life have worn me out, although there’s some of that. It’s that  all my life I have been farbrent (on fire, in yiddish, as my father always says) for the very things that I believe Pesach represents: speaking truth to power, that the status quo is neither natural nor inevitable, that God and community working together can change the course of history and dig a new course for the imagination, leading to new ways of doing, and to new ways of thinking, that freedom is not  simply an absence of fetters, but a responsibility and an obligation towards the Good.

But last year, although I still put an orange on my seder plate, I called a moratorium on  other items: no tomatoes, no olive oil, no olives, no coffee beans or chocolate. This year: no seder inserts.  Any extras came exclusively from the talmud or from a more-or-less traditional commentary (we happen to like the meandering stories of the Ben Ish Chai).  I felt just completely worn out by the vast number of projects, problems, issues, wars, oppressions to which I’ve devoted time and energy – and which somehow this year, feel as though they’re never going to go away. And no amount of scrubbing has rid me of that chametz – the chametz of – is it despair? Perhaps not so grand as that: let’s just call it – a fading of energy.

And so yesterday, after we returned to chol hamoed – the intermediate days of the holiday, when we’re permitted to use electronics and the like, thus drawing me back to the sucking hole of the internet – one might think that Facebook would  only make it worse. And it kind of did, until I saw a post of the marriage equality image with matzah as the symbol. Well, to be truthful, the first time I saw it, I thought it clever, and then ignored it a dozen or fifty times.  Until I saw a response to a snarky post pointing out that the SCOTUS was unlikely to take the many facebook posts into consideration in their decision on marriage equality.

The poster said that he was annoyed by the snark. Of course he knew that one’s Facebook icon wouldn’t change a Supreme Court ruling. But simply seeing all those avatars changed into equality symbols of a dozen different kinds, seeing people whom he had never expected to be supporting marriage equality, seeing the sheer numbers of people – reminded him that he was not alone. That that was the value of those images.  And more importantly that even though it’s true that SCOTUS doesn’t vote based on facebook images,  society changes when the individuals that make it up change, and that that happens one person at a time, but also in waves, as each one sees another, and realizes that  the status quo isn’t right, and that even if I myself,  can’t change it all, I can be one drop in the sea, and eventually every tear that falls can make an ocean, when they are counted together.

I know that. I do. And, so, okay, I’m still tired. But the message of Pesach isn’t that I’m supposed to be farbrent about everything. It is that I have my part to play in creating that ocean. I don’t have to be even an entire wave – I can have faith that there are others out there, working hard on these problems along with me, and that together, with God’s help, they will be overcome. Maybe not today, or even this week. Maybe it will be 430 years, although I hope it will be someday, soon, speedily in our day.

Posted on March 28, 2013

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Wicked Son: “Because I knew you…”

imgresWe had reached one of those loaded moments in our family Passover seder where all my acumen as a parent, an educator, and as a rabbi are tested simultaneously. See, I have four sons, and hence a problem. We had already sung the Ballad of the Four Sons to the tune of My Darling Clementine, and it was now time to assign passages in the hagaddah to each of my boys, each of which, on any given day shows streaks of wisdom, wickedness, simpleness, and a lack of being able to ask a question much beyond “is dinner ready? (While technically a question, I refuse to count it). The danger in assigning parts is that I could unwittingly play into a fraternal competition of “See, Abba likes me best!” This is how I played it this year: I assigned the readings randomly, and before they could read into which part they were assigned (“Hey, why did I get the wicked one?”) I said the following:

Let’s read these straight through and as we read them pay attention to clues, I am going to ask you which child do you think I like best, and why (for a wonderful contemporary/traditional take on the Four Sons, check out this G-Dcast video).

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The Wise Child asks, “What is the meaning of the laws, statues and customs which the Lord our God has commanded us?”

Answer him with all the laws, to the very last detail of the afikoman.

The Wicked Child asks, “What is the meaning of this to you?”

Answer him, “You have denied a principle of our faith. This was done for me, and not you!”

The Simple Child asks, “What is this about?”

Answer him, “God took us out of Egypt with a mighty and outstretched arm.”

To the One Who Does Not Know What to Ask, say, “This is done because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt.”

To my delight, they gave me the answers I wanted.

“The wise child because he is wise.”

“The wicked child because he asks tough questions.”

“The simple son because he is open to anything you say. You said that last year.”

“I did?”

“Yes, you did,” two others guests at the table corroborated.

“I think it’s the One Who Doesn’t Know What to Ask, because he is polite and let’s you start the conversation.”

I know that each of us carries each of these traits within ourselves, and I pointed that out, with the use of a helpful and provocative paper-cut image in one of our haggadot (plural for haggadah)

69-ReisingerThis year I said that I preferred the wicked one – “He asks the best question,” I answered. And, I believe he does. I was also struck, more so than other years, that the Wicked son gets a bad rap, not only for asking a fair and pointed question – which we otherwise applaud (It is said that a Jewish parent does not ask a child, “what did you learn at school today,” but rather, “did you ask a good question today?”) The problem with the wicked child is that he has a crappy teacher, who slams him for showing up to the seder and being himself, for wanting some integrity in the system? “Do you believe this stuff?” “Is this still relevant?” “Why are you so Jewish all of a sudden?” The response to the Wicked child got me thinking about what I would say as a high school teacher, if I could say anything I wanted to these four archetypal students:

To the Wise son, “What are the statues, laws, and customs? Why are you asking me? Go read the Tenth Chapter of the Talmudic Tractate on Passover, and then we can discuss it, then you can explain about the Afikoman to your brothers.”

To the Wicked son, “What does this mean to me? Good question. I think it is an individual challenge to understand the duality of confinement and freedom. Ask yourself, what constraints on your life would you want to be free from? What obligations do you have to yourself and others as you exercise your freedom?”

To the Simple son, “Dig a little deeper. Yes we are commemorating an event that has long past, and whose memory still inspires us today, but go a little further – Why? Why should we bother with this? What lessons are we trying to hold on to? What implications does it have for the world we live in today?”

To the One Who Does Not Know What to Ask, I want to answer along the lines of Sterns Professor Scott Galloway, in his “Get your S–t Together” email to a student a few years ago – here is an excerpt:

…Let me be more serious for a moment. I do not know you, will not know you and have no real affinity or animosity for you. You are an anonymous student who is now regretting the send button on his laptop. It’s with this context I hope you register pause…REAL pause xxxx and take to heart what I am about to tell you:

xxxx, get your s–t together.

Getting a good job, working long hours, keeping your skills relevant, navigating the politics of an organization, finding a live/work balance…these are all really hard, xxxx. In contrast, respecting institutions, having manners, demonstrating a level of humility…these are all (relatively) easy. Get the easy stuff right xxxx. In and of themselves they will not make you successful. However, not possessing them will hold you back and you will not achieve your potential which, by virtue of you being admitted to Stern, you must have in spades.

So To the One Who Does Not Know What to Ask, I find myself wanting to say, “Hey, Judaism, like being part of this family around this table is not a pass/fail course in which you can just hide out in the back. We need your voice in the mix too. You can ask picayune questions about tiny details, you can ask pointed questions in an antagonistic tone, you can even ask a basic question that you think everyone but you must know the answer to, but passivity is never a substitute for actual learning – doing nothing, saying nothing doesn’t just hurt you. You don’t have to be the smartest. You don’t have to be witty, you don’t have to leave your skepticism at the door, or anything like that, but keeping your personal Torah, your deep inner wisdom to yourself, deprives us all of sparks of the divine that only you hold. We are not at the movies, silence is not golden.

The Four Sons by Eli Valley

The Four Sons by Eli Valley

The Four Sons by Eli Valley.Click to see the full-size image.

First posted on April 10, 2012

Posted on March 26, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Wicked Child

wicked childAll the Seder-goers I know love reading about the “four children” in the Passover Haggadah. But they all dislike the section about the “wicked child.” The traditional text of the Haggadah, they say, treats this child with harsh prejudice. And they are right!

Four times the Torah instructs the Israelites to teach their children about the Exodus from Egypt. But our Talmudic sages believed Torah was immaculately edited, and nothing was repeated without a good reason. Each repetition, they said, gives instructions for teaching a different type of child: wise, wicked, simple, and not ready to ask.

About the wicked child, the Haggadah says:

The wicked child asks, “What does this service mean to you?”

To me, this seems a straightforward enough question. Maybe everyone else seems to know what is going on. Maybe everyone else knows the symbolic meanings of things. Maybe everyone else has a deep emotional connection. Maybe the child is a social-science researcher.

But the narrator of the Haggadah is terribly triggered by the wording of the question.

To you?!? And not to the questioner? Just as he has taken himself out of the community, and committed essential heresy, so you should set his teeth on edge, and say to him, “Because of this service God acted for ME when I left Egypt.” For ME and not for him. If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.

Ouch!

Contemporary commentaries flare up in the child’s defence. “The wicked child is insulted.” “This is why so many people remember ritual as unpleasant.” “This illustrates the pitfalls of labelling people.” “Can you imagine God being so judgmental as to leave someone behind?”

This year, I am the wicked child. I am not in the mood for Passover, and don’t particularly feel like part of the community.

It’s not that I failed to try. I started cleaning, reviewed the Haggadah, planned a fun second Seder at the synagogue, studied new ideas and even gave a sermon about one of them. But I can’t conjure any connection between these activities and a holiday spirit.

It’s my first Passover without my wise Mom and my sensible Aunt Sylvia. During their last four years, I managed to travel 6,000 miles each Pesach just to spend part of the holiday with them. But this year, they are gone. My brother will spend the Seders with others who miss them, but I won’t be connected. No one can take their place. Perhaps friends have sensed this. For first Seder, I invited no one and no one invited me.

In Jewish symbolism, the Exodus is everything. We were slaves in mitzrayim, the narrow place, and God took us out. “Leaving the narrow place” is an archetypal pattern. Passover is zecher l’yitziat mitzrayim, commemoration of the Exodus. So, says Torah, is Shabbat. Sukkot. Financial responsibility. Kind speech. Jews also invoke the Exodus as a spiritual metaphor for just about any inner journey. National rejuvenation after acts of antisemitism. Community healing from illness and sorrow. Individual clarity after a time of confusion.

The metaphor even finds me in my lonely corner. Here I am, in the narrow place, not ready for Passover. This year, I look at others and wonder, “What does all this mean to you?” Because I don’t know what it means to me. Like the fictional wicked child, I will be at the Seder; I will even lead it. But in a personal way, I may not be redeemed.

The Haggadah’s negative reaction to the wicked child, however, has been redeemed for me. My own situation suggests a psycho-spiritual interpretation. Perhaps this child is in need of liberation. Perhaps the tools are set before her. But perhaps she is not ready yet to recognize them as her own. As long as she imagines they are only available to others, she will not be redeemed. But that is not the final word. When her attitude shifts, she too will leave the narrow place and enter a community of joy.

Commentaries: Israel Eldad, Ira Steingroot, Yaariv ben Aharon, Arthur Green. Image: morethanfour.org. Cross-posted at On Sophia Street.

Posted on March 24, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

One game-changing innovation for your Seder this year

Around this time of year I often find myself fielding questions about what haggadah to use, and how families can spice up their Seder rituals at home.  There are so many choices these days, and the answer may depend on who will be at your Seder, the age of the children, and the relative value you place on nostalgia vs creativity or innovation, among other factors.

seder 2007 4

But the one element that I have found to be a game-changer when it comes to how Seder night is experienced is an element that is often completely overlooked: Logistics and lay-out.  This is one of the most overlooked elements of the Seder but one that I have come to appreciate as crucial.  While not every home has the space to accommodate some creativity in this department, we have found that sitting on sofas, cushions and chairs in concentric circles around a coffee table in a living room to be much more conducive, at least for the pre-meal part of the Seder, than sitting still around a formally-laid table.  Young children can get up and move around more easily without being a distraction, and the atmosphere engenders more conversation and interaction between the adults too.  At our Seder we often hang colorful fabrics in the room to create the feeling of sitting under a tent. Some homes are large enough to move people to tables for the meal, but going for a more informal buffet and continuing to eat in the same space as you’ve gathered for the ritual can be just as good an option too.

In truth, while I highlight logistics and layout as the game-changer because it is so often not even considered as a player in the creation of a great Seder, there is another element to our family Seder that has been just as significant a game-changer in the Passover experience. At our Seder, we have taken to inserting different freedom-related themes each year, as we invite guests to add their own midrashim – in the form of news articles, photos, videos, and more.  In our home we compile these images into a powerpoint presentation ahead of time and project the images for all to see and to discuss during the Seder, but a household that doesn’t want to use technology in this way on a festival night can achieve the same kind by simply handing around printed copies.  And so, when we get to the maggid section of the Seder (the telling of the story), we often depart from the Rabbis’ retellings from centuries ago embedded in the pages of our various haggadot.  In each generation we must experience the exodus from Egypt as if it were our personal experience.  When we add our own stories and images, we can dramatically engage each other in meaningful conversations about the nature of freedom that can be viscerally felt at a deeper level.

Take a look at my posting on Maggid 2.0 where I reported on our first year of taking this approach at our 2011 Seder, for an example of this visually-rich and conversation-stimulating approach to Passover.

Many blessings for a wonderful, engaging, meaningful Passover!

Posted on March 20, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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